Why Is It so Difficult to Break Unhealthy Habits?
If you are trying to change a behavior you may have noticed it takes weeks of repeated actions before you develop a pattern. And when it comes to actually forming a habit it is often months in the making if not more.
Skeptical about the timeline for change? Think back to your New Year resolution: How long did it last? And if you kept it, when did the implemented change feel more or less permanent?
When you are trying to kick off unhealthy habits, there are a few factors involved in a change strategy that can be effective.
The most obvious factor is the desire or motivation to alter behavior. This is the point when you (finally) realize dropping those 10 extra pounds, change your homework habits, or stop impulsive online purchases is worth it.
But if it is “easier said than done” it is because we often fail to acknowledge there are factors other than motivation that come into play for a successful change to occur. Let’s look at some essential players.
You Need to Prepare for Change
Before committing to working out three times a week, ask yourself: are you sure you have allocated the necessary time, energy, and resources for such implementation? Are you ready to replace an unhealthy habit with a good one?
Shout “if there is a will there is a way” all you want but if no mechanism is in place for change to occur you will find excuses to delay, rationalize why you ‘couldn’t make it that day,’ and then, slowly but surely, shift back to your old habit.
Fear of Change Makes it Difficult to Break Unhealthy Habits
If something has kept you from exercising you may not realize you enjoy being inactive more than you care to acknowledge.
For is it not possible that in fact you really don’t want to give up the comfort of your couch, the pleasure of mindless eating, or your two sacred hours of social networking?
Many people decide to change only immediately after having a large ‘dose’ of the behavior they want to change.
That is why New Year resolutions to diet following Christmas week (i.e., a week of much eating) tend to fail and why students who declare they have decided to study regularly following a month-long love affair with their video games will welcome Mr. Procrastinator sooner than they think.
So before declaring you want to change, ask yourself the question: “Do I truly want to eat less, play less, or spend less?”
But possibly the most intriguing part of human behavior is why we sometimes cannot change despite satisfying the motivation, prepping, and cost/benefit conditions. The answer lies in exploring a characteristic only found in humans… the tendency to behave in ways that appear irrational.
Almost all of us can think back to a time or situation when we have maintained self-destructive behaviors despite knowing we are being harmed. Why do we do that? If we know and have the means to change, why don’t we?
For the answer, we turn to Dollard and Miller, two brilliant psychologists who have not been given their fair share in the psychological literature. They state that behavior is the hardest to change when it is maintained by fear.
It doesn’t matter if the change is good or bad, if we have been conditioned to react fearfully when we try to make a change, the behavior will stubbornly continue.
In fact, the more we avoid the change the greater the fear of a change. Think back to someone who complains about their job or their relationship.
Action is much easier in the early stages of dislike then after numerous years. That is because for every new attempt at change (“that’s it, I am leaving”) and no action takes place, there is a further reinforcement of the repetitive pattern.
In other words, you are getting ‘better’ at saying and not doing which makes it all the more harder to actually implement the change. Why someone may be afraid of even much-desired change is complex and requires an exploration of one’s own life development.
Short of doing that, it may be enough to know the reason you may be stuck with behavioral patterns despite satisfying the condition discussed in this article it is because, for one reason or another, your fears for change have been reinforced over and over again.
Once you explore and understand those fears you might be able to say: “that was then, but this is now, and it is time for me to take that leap.” Kinda like diving. Once you are past the fear of jumping head first and do it, it gets easier with every new dive.